The business case for investing in IT systems to meet freedom of information legislation is questionable, IT experts claimed this week.
But taken as part of a wider investment in joined-up government and improving document management and processes, it can make financial sense.
The combination of a document management system and a customer relationship management system can not only reduce the costs of processing Freedom of Information Act requests but improve general administration procedures.
"Freedom of information is about having good business practice and good housekeeping in managing information," said Joan Fennelly, a consultant at change management consultancy Partners for Change.
"If you look at the amount of time people spend on corporate information, 35% of their time is spent trying to access the right information. The document management that underpins the Act benefits a lot of government initiatives. Instead of having stacks of filing space, documents can be stored electronically at a fraction of the cost."
She quoted the example of one city council that spends £46,000 a year storing paper archives - a cost that could be reduced by storing documents electronically.
But there are other non-tangible benefits. Paul Smith, technology director at Comino, cited examples of children in danger slipping through the social services net with tragic consequences.
The first step in preparing to automate a document management system is to conduct an information audit across the organisation. This means identifying what information is held, where it is held and how long.
Once organisations have identified the information they collect, it is important to simplify work processes and rationalise systems before investing in IT.
"Technology is the last thing you should think about," said Bob Wiggins, principal consultant at Socitm. "It is all about processes and thinking. It is about stepping back and looking at it coldly."
Too often organisations view IT as a panacea for freedom of information compliance, said Fennelly.
"There seems to be very little awareness or effort to change the way they work behind the scenes. Although each department has its own way of filing information, there needs to be a consistent way of managing and putting in place procedures to make that happen," she said.
Government recommends two IT systems for processing requests
The Department of Constitutional Affairs has identified two key technologies that sit on top of customer relationship management and document management systems that can help public sector bodies meet the challenges of the Freedom of Information Act.
First, automated tracking systems can help departments record freedom of information requests and appeals. They should provide an audit trail for the work done, including who did what and what databases were accessed. This will allow the department's compliance with the Act to be assessed if cases go to appeal.
Second, systems are available which allow portions of word-processed documents to be blanked out, where information falls within one of the 25 exemptions of the Freedom of Information Act. The systems keep a record of the reason for the exemption.